Sunset Overdrive’s clash of punk spirit and corporate culture
Anarchic, irreverent, edgy: Microsoft’s marketing would have you believe Sunset Overdrive is all of these things. But it’s more middle-age crisis than teenage rebellion, its brand of corporate-approved chaos misappropriating the concept of punk. It’s an executive wearing a Ramones T-shirt beneath a suit jacket, inserting ‘rad’ in a PowerPoint slide, and livening up conferences by booking the bands of his youth.
As a musical genre, punk was defined as much by its attitude as its sound. It was about flicking two fingers at the establishment, not giving a second thought as to how others perceived it. Punk rock was played by performers who considered their lack of virtuosity a virtue. So to see it appropriated by a game made with an extravagant budget and by a developer with no little expertise is bizarre, not least because it’s so pleadingly keen for you to love it. It cares far too much.
That’s reflected in so many aspects of the game, not least its desperation to look the part. A good portion of its selection of haircuts, clothing and tattoos seems to have been sourced from a Google image search for ‘punk’, and as such there’s something slightly too calculated about its wardrobe, its colours and distressed patterns too artfully designed. It’s a Guardian fashion editor’s idea of dressing down, while the stranger options – a wolf’s head, a LARPer’s helmet – have better, sillier equivalents in the Saints Row games.
Nor is punk about adenoidal mumblings and the occasional yelp over chugging three-chord guitar rhythms. Overdrive’s soundtrack features a number of bands – The Melvins, The Bronx – who would selfidentify as punk and yet, with a handful of exceptions, it’s painfully one-note. If the action does its best to raise your pulse, the music seems to be endeavouring to return your heartbeat to its resting rate. To paraphrase Joey Ramone, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain. You can’t be anti-establishment when your ideas don’t break the status quo, but perpetuate it. Here is a game that suffers every bit as badly from the bloat that has afflicted its contemporaries, that fills its world with content and expects everyone to be impressed by its volume. It’s structured almost identically to its peers, scattering collectibles and optional challenges throughout its world, and featuring the levelling systems and endless upgrades that have become de rigueur in recent years.
Its humour is a little too targeted as well. Its barrage of pop-culture nods and self-referential winks are mostly riffs on ideas we’ve seen on dozens of occasions before, and those that aren’t – a cutscene that borrows brazenly from Cabin In The Woods, and mentions of Reddit, GameFAQs and NeoGAF – again feel like they stem from its makers’ keenness to demonstrate that they share plenty in common with their audience.
Elsewhere, attempts to break the fourth wall, and to poke fun at videogame conventions, fall into a common trap. One early moment sees our protagonist wondering aloud whether a nearby NPC is relevant, because there’s no icon above his head. It’s a sharp little dig at a staple of the open-world genre, but it’s instantly undermined by Insomniac slavishly adhering to it. It makes for a fine analogy for the game as a whole, something that hints at a desire to be different but then fails almost entirely to follow it through. And no prizes for guessing what follows a complaint about laborious fetchquests.
The excessive swearing, meanwhile, feels like hollow bluster, bringing to mind Bill Grundy goading Steve Jones to “say something outrageous” on live television. There’s certainly something amusing about a game that purports to be punk featuring filters for gore and bad language, presumably tailored towards anyone playing with children present (though, in fact, the frequent bleeps make the script’s potty mouth all the more noticeable, and funnier).
Yet that in itself is strangely subversive, an uncommonly considerate addition in a genre that traditionally celebrates violence and vulgarity. And it’s not the only disruptive element. Sunset Overdrive is remarkably frank about its plot contrivances being nothing more than flimsy excuses to send you back out into the world to grind and bounce and shoot some mutants. Its nonplayable interruptions cut to the chase, rather than wasting time with shallow character development as many of its peers would.
And its tone is decidedly unorthodox: most openworld games are power fantasies, but this is a cartoon that embraces its inherent silliness. There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about being rewarded with thick wads of greenbacks when you rescue a survivor, and likewise the way they’re automatically absorbed without your having to press a button, or even pass over them. The game blithely refuses to make excuses for its abundance of grindable edges, nor explain why rails and abandoned vehicles are arranged into racing lines. There are no cutscenes that tell you why you can suddenly dash in midair, or bounce higher than before. You simply can, and so you do. That’s weirdly revelatory.
Moreover, in forcing its players to embrace its unconventional methods of getting around, Sunset Overdrive finds a crucial point of distinction. Actively incentivising fluid movement and punishing attempts to muddle through feels like a quiet kind of rebellion against what we’ve come to expect from the open-world genre, where absolute freedom is king. Maybe there’s a little bit of punk in Insomniac’s latest after all.